f I could own but one vessel for steeping tea, it would be a simple Chinese gaiwan—preferably porcelain and, if given a choice of sizes, always diminutive. I was reminded of its elegance on a recent trip to London where Juyan Webster made cup after cup of tea for me in her shop, The Chinese Tea Company, on Portobello Road. Her infuser of choice was a beautifully decorated porcelain gaiwan.
With all the electronic tea makers on the market, consumers can easily spend over $100 for a tea dispensing machine that brews a cup of tea in less than a minute, but I like the old-fashioned simplicity of the gaiwan.
Since the Ming dynasty, this humble three-piece tea bowl has been used to coax the subtle aromas from delicate white, green, and oolong teas. The set consists of a bowl, saucer, and lid that easily fits in the hand. No special instructions are required. A few tea leaves are placed in the bowl, hot water is added, the lid is placed, and the steeping begins right under your nose.
This is the common cup of hospitality placed into the hands of visitors upon entering a Chinese home. As the compact tea bowl rests on its saucer in your hands, the steeping tea warms your fingers while the aroma of the re-hydrating leaves teases you with hints of the delicious flavors that are about to appear.
The art of holding a gaiwan takes a bit of practice and a sense of balance. The saucer is held in place with the right thumb while the first two fingers of the right hand secure the knobbed lid. The stacked dishes are kept in place by light pressure. When the tea is steeped, the lid is pushed back slightly to keep the leaves in check while the liquor is drunk.